The Lemon Twigs
Photo: Eva Chambers / TCB Public Relations

The Lemon Twigs’ ‘Everything Harmony’ Wades Deep Into the Mid-1970s

On Everything Harmony the Lemon Twigs echo and even improve on their 1970s influences with such skill and spirit that they demand we take them seriously.

Everything Harmony
The Lemon Twigs
Captured Tracks
5 May 2023

The critic Robert Christgau once dismissed the music of a Long Island act popular in the 1980s by calling it “synthesis without thesis or antithesis”. Naturally, you’re thinking Billy Joel, but the object of Christgau’s derision was Debbie Gibson, whose career-making debut single “Only in My Dreams” hit the Top Ten when she was 16.

That’s about the same age brothers Brian and Michael D’Addario were (17 and 15) when they founded the Lemon Twigs about eight years ago. Despite their youth, they were, like Gibson, already immersed in the world of entertainment; but unlike Gibson, whom Christgau unfairly slighted by calling her a “showbiz kid manque”, the D’Addarios weren’t manque. They’d started performing on Broadway and appearing in movies when their ages were still in the single digits.

You might initially be tempted to call Everything Harmony, the new album by these two showbiz kids from Long Island, another example of “synthesis without thesis or antithesis”. After all, their new batch of songs is so derivative of the early to mid-1970s that on first listen to it, it can be hard to hear past the influences. Yet the Lemon Twigs echo and, at times, even improve on those influences with such convincing skill and ebullient spirit that they demand we take them more seriously than the world took Debbie Gibson when she was a teenager. (She’s had a long and hard-earned career since then, so shame on her early detractors.)

In any case, the D’Addarios aren’t teenagers anymore. Older brother Brian is 26, and Michael is 24. Not that age comparisons are uncategorically fair to make, but their hero Todd Rundgren was younger than both brothers are now when he released Something/Anything? The musically omnivorous, talent-oozing, and unmistakably-Todd double LP is widely considered his masterpiece (even if Rundgren would likely choose its 1973 follow-up, A Wizard, A True Star). Something/Anything? was Rundgren’s third solo album. Everything Harmony is the Lemon Twigs’ fourth. By now, it’s natural to expect artistic evolution, even evidence of maturity. Rockstars, like athletes, come of age much earlier than the rest of us.

It’s just that the Lemon Twigs have come of age into an age that isn’t their own. Everything Harmony sounds as if music history ended in 1976—but it’s a 1976 in which the Beach Boys‘ influence hasn’t drastically receded (which in real life it had), folk music is still going strong, Big Star have become big stars, and the Partridge Family are not only popular but also cool, and you want your new band to sound like them. You might even credibly aspire to have your own musical TV show, as the Lemon Twigs’ vintage-styled video for “Any Time of Day” suggests—not to mention the twig-skinny D’Addarios’ vintage wardrobe preferences.

There are other influences here, as well. The most prominent is Rundgren, who gave the Lemon Twigs their first important public blessing six years ago when he joined them on stage during a California gig to fire off a rollicking version of his power pop classic “Couldn’t I Just Tell You”. The band has since earned accolades from 1970s gods as diverse as Elton John and Iggy Pop (although you are not wrong to wonder how different those two really are.)

Another 1970s influence is certainly the D’Addarios’ father, Ronnie, an accomplished professional musician himself and a demonstrable presence in the Lemon Twigs’ career and sound—they even regularly cover one of his songs in live shows. Perhaps, though, the D’Addarios are so in love with the music of the Gerald Ford years simply because of how wide the mainstream airwaves were then—especially compared to now, one of the most divisive and unaccommodating periods in living memory (and not just musically, of course). It makes sense that musicians “obsessed with everything harmony”, as the new album’s title track avows, would be drawn to the mid-1970s’ everything moment. The consequent concern is that when you swim in such a wide bend of the mainstream, you leave yourself open to charges of shallowness.

The Lemon Twigs don’t squeeze their disparate influences together into single songs but generally alternate between them. Everything Harmony’s opener (“When Winter Comes Around”) and closer (“New to Me”) are acoustic ballads (the latter incorporates some Beach Boys harmonies and a little organ), as are “I Don’t Belong to Me” and “Every Day Is the Worst Day of My Life”. Three other songs, “In My Head”, “Ghost Run Free”, and “What You Were Doing”—possibly the best Big Star song since Big Star—deliver winning power pop. The remaining half of the album is awash in commercial 1970s melodicism that ranges from the Bay City Rollers to Rundgren to yacht rock to Pippin. (It’s hard not to hear “Corner of My Eye” as an oblique nod to “Corner of the Sky”).

There are moments when it’s hard to tell if Everything Harmony is homage or parody, even when the D’Addarios’ lyrics grow introspective or surprisingly dark at times. How are we meant to take “Every Day Is the Worst Day of My Life”, whose title constitutes the entire lyric set, which simply repeats “Every day is the worst day of my life / The worst day of my life” for three straight verses over some gentle strumming—and that’s the whole song. Michael’s delivery is a plaintive cri de coeur in which he allows his voice to crack adolescently at one point. The song is quite funny. Is it supposed to be?

The question of where the Lemon Twigs stand in relation to their music was cleared up to some degree by a gig in North Carolina last month. It was clear from the moment they took the stage that the D’Addarios can really play—and not just one instrument each. Both Brian and Michael started the set on guitar, but Michael spent some time on drums, where he’s more than passable (and very flamboyant behind the kit), and Brian is a superb bass player. He also spent some quality time on keyboards. This isn’t a showbiz gimmick. Musicianship as skilled and serious as the Lemon Twigs’—whose touring lineup includes Danny Ayala alternating between bass and keyboards and Reza Matin on drums and guitar—refutes any hint of a put-on and verifies authenticity, even depth. These guys aren’t shallow at all. They mean it.

Live, the four-piece combo rocked louder and harder than the Lemon Twigs do on Everything Harmony. It’s the tendency for most any band’s dials and tempos to get turned up in live settings. But there might be an edgier, noisier band in the Lemon Twigs than the one they produce in the studio—especially if younger brother Michael, who mainly stood stage left, should ever take some reps at the center mic where Brian usually stands. Michael has a more irreverent presence than his more earnest older brother—perhaps suggestive of sibling-driven thesis-antithesis, even as their voices harmonize beautifully.

That isn’t to say the Lemon Twigs ought to be edgier and noisier. Every band should be exactly what it wants to be, but if the D’Addarios are going to advance some decades from their current retro position, it’ll require a change in demeanor as well as genre. In other words, an expressed dissatisfaction or even disaffection with—in other words, antithesis to—the prodigiously accomplished music they’ve already proven themselves capable of making and performing so ably and joyfully.

One suggestion of a new possible direction was right there in the club with them. The Lemon Twigs’ opening act was the Chris Stamey band. Stamey is an indie legend, founder of the dBs, and the musical partner for a while of Alex Chilton, post-Big Star: the unpredictable and wayward Chilton who, like the D’Addarios, got started young (he was a teenager when he sang lead for the Box Tops). The erratic career that ensued is a cautionary tale about the perils of early success.

Stamey’s set included some songs from his years before both the dBs and Chilton when he was in the short-lived band Sneakers with another indie legend-to-be, Mitch Easter. These catchy and inventive tunes proceed from something close to Big Star’s Radio City aesthetic, but they aren’t quite power pop. They draw their energy instead from an almost defiant, herky-jerk restlessness and roughness that went against the generally smooth musical grain of their time: the same mid-1970s where the Lemon Twigs have situated themselves, but a far less commercial and more jagged edge of it. Sneakers were a proto-indie band, as far from the mainstream as they could get.

The D’Addarios are born entertainers, just like Debbie Gibson and Billy Joel, with strong crowd-pleasing instincts, but inviting the Chapel Hill-based Stamey to open for them wasn’t merely a shop-local expedient. They clearly love him, and they’d arranged to bring him up on stage at the conclusion of their encore to play one of his old tunes, “From the Word Go”. The D’Addarios were visibly delighted to share the stage with a forbear they admire and even revere, and the admiration was mutual: Stamey effused to the crowd that the Lemon Twigs were better than when the Beatles played The Ed Sullivan Show. The shocked, disbelieving scoff on Michael’s face spoke volumes.

The Lemon Twigs could go the way of indie if they wanted to. They could put their chops, performative flair, and brotherly symbiosis behind the hooky, angular guitar pop that never quite became bankable in its day. But that’s just one path among many. The D’Addarios could keep doing more or less what they’re doing now, reviving the mainstream 1970s, or they could move on to the 1980s and start rehabbing the synth-and-drum-machine sound that took Debbie Gibson to fame.

Maybe they’ll leave pop and rock altogether, write musicals and star in them. Or they could build their own studio and remake themselves as producers—they’ve already gained advanced production skills and sensibilities. Or they could just split up. When you’re born with as much talent and opportunity as the D’Addarios have and blessed with the work ethic to succeed in almost anything you try, life challenges you not with the quantity of its obstacles but with its choices. The assured, varied, and ear-pleasing Everything Harmony raises anticipation for whatever choices the Lemon Twigs will make next.

RATING 8 / 10